Eastern Shore landowners are smiling and environmentalists are frowning over yesterday's U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decision to back off from controversial rules protecting up to 75 percent of freshwater wetlands in Maryland.
The corps yesterday relaxed construction restrictions on farmed wetlands, a shift that could affect as much as 700,000 acres of Maryland's 1 million acres of non-tidal wetlands.
The decision was intended, the Army said, to allow regulators to concentrate efforts on the most vital wetlands.
Freshwater, or non-tidal, wetlands are inland marshes, bogs and wet woods that control floods, shelter wildlife and sustain Chesapeake Bay by filtering out pollutants, sediments and nutrients.
In a guidance letter issued yesterday by Maj. Gen. Patrick Kelly, the corps declared that it would not regulate building in wetlands that had been converted to farmland before Dec. 23, 1985. Kelly is the director of civil works for the corps.
Federal officials said they have no estimates yet of how many acres would be affected, but the impact would be significant on the Eastern Shore, where soil surveys have indicated that half or more of the land could be classified as wetlands.
"This could have drastic impact," said Robert L. Zepp Jr., assistant supervisor of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Annapolis field office.
Margaret Ann Reigle, chairman of a group of Eastern Shore and southern Maryland landowners protesting wetlands restrictions, said the corps action was "a big relief," but she urged even further changes to give landowners greater freedom over use of their land.
The shift comes as a corps proposal to let Maryland regulate most construction in non-tidal wetlands draws mostly negative reviews. The state had proposed to exempt building on up to 2 acres of farmed wetlands, in an effort to ease restrictions on land that, until January 1989, had not been treated as wetlands.
Environmentalists called the corps proposal to let Maryland control most wetlands construction "a developer's dream," while builders, farmers and property owners want even more freedom from restrictions on the use of their land.
Most of the roughly 70 letters received so far by the corps' Baltimore District office oppose the corps' plan to share its non-tidal wetlands protection responsibilities with the state.
Environmental groups and many individuals apparently don't trust state officials to do a good job of protecting non-tidal wetlands, according to Thomas Filip, assistant chief of the corps' regulatory branch. Many of the letter-writers accused the state of lacking experience and political will to resist development pressures.
The state's non-tidal wetlands protection law is to take effect Jan. 1, and the Army proposed a "general permit" last month authorizing the state to issue permits for a variety of building and farming activities that would disturb up to 10 acres of non-tidal wetlands.
State officials, who have been besieged by complaints about recent federal regulation of farmed wetlands on the Eastern Shore and in Southern Maryland, say they are generally satisfied with the proposed power-sharing arrangement worked out in lengthy negotiations.
Spokesmen for builders and farmers also expressed general support. But they and state officials all urged the Army to broaden exemptions from regulation for building in wetlands that have already been disturbed by farming.
State and federal officials will share responsibility for reviewing requests to build in non-tidal wetlands.
The Corps of Engineers will have the authority to require an independent federal review of any project it believes could cause significant environmental harm.
But other federal environmental agencies appear to have a diminished role in deciding whether to approve wetlands development projects.
That is partly why environmental groups such as the National Wildlife Federation, the Izaak Walton League and the Maryland Conservation Council contend that the corps' proposal would be an illegal weakening of federal environmental protections.